After a drizzly day in early December that pushed temperatures in Seoul well below minus 10 degrees Celsius, office worker Lee Ja-yoon, 30, finally finished preparing her house for the full-fledged winter chill likely to last at least through February.
Lee started with her wardrobe. She took out the wool coats and replaced them with a long padded coat -- the ankle-length garments became ubiquitous in Korea during last winter’s biting cold -- as well as thermal underwear, fur-lined leggings and gloves designed for use with smartphone screens.
Lee then went on to plaster the windows of her house with bubble wrap for insulation and fished out the water boiler mat from storage. The mat is a more affordable choice for Lee, as a floor-heating gas boiler costs more than the electricity required to heat the water inside the mat. “I have two mats. One for the bed and one for the living room where I sit,” Lee said.
Pedestrians brace themselves in the winter cold. (Yonhap)
The hot water or “onsu” mat has a small square boiler attached at one end. After the boiler is filled and the power switched on, it sends heated water through thin pipes inside the mat. The word “onsu” comes from Chinese characters adapted to Korean language, meaning warm water. Onsu mats have gained in popularity over electric mats among Koreans in recent years out of concern for safety. Many people also still use electric mats for more immediate heating and as an easier operation.
The steps Lee has taken to brace for winter are similar to those many in Korea follow, with some variation. Some opt for heavier curtains in place of bubble wrap, or place rugs on the floor to keep out the chill. A bidet toilet seat that warms itself up is undoubtedly an immense modern convenience.
For outdoor activities, “hot packs” have become a vital accessory to have at the ready in the winter. The palm-sized disposable or reusable pouches heat up quickly and stay warm for around two hours. Just holding them helps ward off the cold, but there are also some designed to be stuck to the soles of the feet or anywhere else on the body. Also available online in Korea are rechargeable electronic dolls that warm up at the press of a button, and slippers in the shape of bear paws that heat up.
Fortunately, the state weather agency of South Korea believes this winter will be more temperate than the last. Its latest three-month outlook, published Nov. 23, dispelled the popular pessimistic prediction that the exceptionally hot summer of this year would see a polar-opposite bitter winter.
Kim Dong-joon of the Korea Meteorological Administration’s department for weather forecasting told The Korea Herald that while day-specific predictions are difficult to make months in advance, this year’s winter is still looking to be warmer than last year, save for occasional pockets of frosty days.
In the report the KMA published at the end of last month, the average temperature for December was forecast between 1 and 2 C, while for January ranging minus 1.6 C to 0.4 C and for February between 0.4 and 1.8 C.
Despite the mild predictions, winter in Korea is nothing to be overlooked, as the cold has already claimed the lives of two in North Chungcheong Province, who died Tuesday, when the mercury marked minus 9.9 C.
More than 190,000 households in Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi Province live in informal housing that lacks proper heating and cooling systems, according to a report from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, which cited data from the Land Ministry. Nationwide, the number nearly doubles to 370,000.
In the period between 2005 and 2015, the number of residences grew 20.3 percent, while informal residences grew 590 percent, rising from 57,000 to 393,800. Various government efforts are being initiated to aid those in financial need this winter.
Meanwhile, one quick way to find warmth in Korea is a trip to a local jjimjilbang, a Korean sauna and spa where one can dress in pajamas provided by the facility and lie on warm floors or sweat out toxins inside heat-packed sauna rooms with temperatures up to 80 degrees Celsius.
By Lim Jeong-yeo (firstname.lastname@example.org